The artwork of West Seattle’s Kyler Martz adorns each of Amazon’s 30 Treasure Trucks. He was making a living as a tattoo artist when Amazon came calling, looking for help to define the circus-caravan style of the roving vans offering one-day deals.

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The first sign that you’re entering Kyler Martz’s time machine is the bright-red 1965 Datsun 320 — immaculately polished, farcically small compared with modern pickups — that sits in his West Seattle driveway.

Go through the wooden gate and into the former electrician’s workshop, and the feeling grows.

A brown leather couch sits against a back wall, flanked by antique file cabinets, and a library-style card catalog. Above is Martz’s art — prints, wood pieces and sculpture with a funky, sometimes nautical, retro style. At the front of the studio is an expansive wooden desk, and, underneath it, the rare sign of modernity: a printer.

One of Kyler Martz’s designs for Amazon’s Seattle Treasure Truck. Note the flannel-wearing mammal, the orca and the ferry. (Courtesy of Kyler Martz)
One of Kyler Martz’s designs for Amazon’s Seattle Treasure Truck. Note the flannel-wearing mammal, the orca and the ferry. (Courtesy of Kyler Martz)

Martz, the desk and the printer spent much of the last year in the service of an unlikely customer: Amazon.com.

Martz’s artwork adorns each of the 30 vehicles in Amazon’s fleet of Treasure Trucks, the roving vans that dispense one-day deals in cities across the country. Each is customized with Martz’s animal characters, which appear alongside the city’s name on the bottom of the customer-facing side, and a circular badge on the other.

For Austin, a ukulele-playing turtle serenades a fox, frog and fish resting at a swimming hole. In Chicago, a tattooed dog wearing a hot-dog suit plies the waters of Lake Michigan. In Nashville, a dapper catfish plays an upright bass.

“It’s kind of this old Vegas, traveling circus, caravan look,” said Martz. “Folksy old details. I’ve always liked rustic stuff.”

The Amazon Treasure Truck, Seattle edition, makes a stop in the Fremont neighborhood. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)
The Amazon Treasure Truck, Seattle edition, makes a stop in the Fremont neighborhood. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times)

Real-world ambassador

The Treasure Truck is among the most unusual of Amazon’s experiments testing new or different ways to sell things to people.

Like many, it began with a trial in the Seattle company’s hometown. Last year, after a several-month delay, a truck filled to the brim with items of a single kind started traveling around Seattle, stopping at a few predetermined spots for an hour or so each.

People with Amazon’s smartphone app ask to be notified of the day’s catch by text message — an espresso maker one day, a package of steak fillets on another. Interested customers click through to purchase the flash deal and meet the truck at a stop on its route.

For Amazon, a company most people interact with online, the trucks have become a rare real-world ambassador. In the short time after the national rollout, they’ve been used in marketing stunts, tie-ins with the likes of Bose and the National Football League, as well as charity programs.

Martz’s link to the Treasure Trucks began with a bluff, and a mural.

Several years ago, Renee Erickson, the award-winning Seattle chef behind the Sea Creatures family of restaurants, received one of Martz’s prints as a gift.

Seeking decoration for the outside of her Wallingford restaurant, The Whale Wins, she tracked him down and asked if he’d done any mural work.

Martz had only dabbled in prints. “I lied and said I’d done one before,” he said.

His first effort wasn’t bad. The 13-foot by 20-foot mural, of whales with ships on their backs, caught the eye of Chris Tobey, who at the time worked across the street at athletic-shoe maker Brooks.

Years later, after Tobey took a job at Amazon, he would reach out to Martz with a commission of his own.

From ads to tattoos

Martz, 31, wasn’t always an artist. He grew up in Boise and went to college there seeking an engineering degree.

When that didn’t pan out, he made his way to Seattle in 2009, eventually settling in Eastlake. A friend of his helped him get a job at an advertising agency, assembling and repairing office furniture. Martz would parlay that into a copywriting job.

In practice, it was less “Mad Men,” more night shifts monitoring social media on behalf of big clients. (If you complained on Twitter about Microsoft Windows 7 between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., there’s a good chance Martz saw it.)

But the job paid the bills as Martz explored an art career and took night classes. He started drawing and set up a makeshift studio in a closet in his one-bedroom apartment.

His inspiration came from children’s books, folk art and the nautical Seattle ambience in Eastlake, a combination of industry, houseboats and old bars.

“It was off the beaten path; everybody went through it, but nobody was hanging out there,” he says.

In 2012, he quit his day job to focus on drawing full time.

The Whale Wins commission came the next year. And at some point, a Capitol Hill tattoo parlor offered to hire him to adapt his style to body art. Martz had no experience, but, as usual, was happy to learn.

By the time Amazon came calling, Martz was making a living primarily as a tattoo artist, dropping in at friends’ studios. He supplemented that with custom pieces, prints and work for companies including Starbucks, Levi’s and Hermès.

“The way I’ve thought about it a lot lately, back in the Renaissance there were these families who were patrons for the arts,” he said. “And now it’s these big companies.”

One of Kyler Martz’s designs for Amazon’s Seattle Treasure Truck. Note the flannel, the orca and the ferry. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
One of Kyler Martz’s designs for Amazon’s Seattle Treasure Truck. Note the flannel, the orca and the ferry. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Letting him run

Tobey got in touch with Martz in the fall of 2016. He was seeking an artist to help define the style Amazon would deploy when Treasure Trucks went national. Amazon was looking for an old-school carnival feel. The aim was for local flair that stopped short of kitsch.

Tobey, creative director for the project, gave Martz license to experiment.

“A lot of times you have to make a ton of compromises [working for] a big company,” Martz said. “You hold the pencil for them,” he said, and they give the orders.

Amazon let him run.

In an era of computer-generated graphics, Martz does his work by hand. For Amazon, he’d originally suggested hand-painting the trucks himself.

Tobey, trying to keep the effort on time, on budget and — an Amazon specialty — rapidly expandable, suggested that was a bad idea.

So Martz settled for hand-drawing each piece of Treasure Truck art, and scanning it for digital coloring.

Each truck, Martz was told, had to have something to say about the local area, without infringing on trademarks that limit reproductions of popular buildings or landmarks. Not something you’d see on a postcard, but a caricature that a local would recognize.

Portland — Martz went with a subtly tattooed hand holding a rose — was easy. Boston, “almost too much to work with,” got a scene of a lobster battling a whale in view of a lighthouse. Seattle’s scene features sea creatures, flannel, an osprey carrying a football, and, of course, a ferry.

But Tampa? “It was a little harder to pick out what is the ferryboat of Tampa, Florida,” Martz said. He went with a roller coaster to evoke the beach vibes and theme parks in the area, along with a couple of piratical alligators dueling with swordfish.

This summer, Amazon started deploying Treasure Trucks in 24 new U.S. cities. And early this month, they made their European debut, landing in London and Manchester, England.

Public art

Martz says he’s received texts from far-flung friends who recognize his work as it has started showing up on the side of Amazon vans around the country.

That’s the kind of work he prefers — something available to the public. His work lines the walls of barber shops and restaurants, and building lobbies, and Seattle signal boxes.

He’s also particularly proud of a 30-foot-long whaleboat piece inside Facebook’s South Lake Union offices, but the audience for that is limited to the outpost’s 1,600 employees.

“Now that I’m retired,” he jokes of his post-Amazon life, he’s still doing custom print work. He’d also like to use some of the animal characters he’s developed in children’s books.

But after a year spent mostly working for a single client, Martz is eager to catch up on another type of public art: the tattoo appointments he’s been putting off.

“A lot of people are mad at me,” he said.